In 1908, 21-year-old Violet Jessop began her new job as a steamship stewardess, assisting lady passengers aboard the Orinoco, headed to the West Indies from England.
Women workers were still a novelty at sea, and most shipping companies preferred hiring older widows who wouldn’t inflame the desires of the libidinous men on board. But Jessop — who had an ill, widowed mother and five siblings to support — promised to be “most circumspect and careful.”
The dark-haired, gray-eyed beauty immediately attracted attention: Sailors fell over themselves to assist her; prurient passengers ogled her slim figure. Later, a captain dismissed her after she snubbed his romantic overtures, accusing her of “flirting with the officers.”
“I did not realize at the time that youth, feminine youth, is almost a fetish to seafaring men and has a tremendous power over them,” Jessop later recalled. “The adulation I had accepted as chivalry was largely a demonstration of sexual attraction.”
Yet Jessop sailed on, embarking on more than 200 ocean trips in the course of her 42-year seafaring career, first as a stewardess and later, during World War I, as a nurse. Her knack for evading death on some of the most treacherous voyages in history earned her the nickname “the unsinkable stewardess.” Aboard the Titanic, when she was just 24, she showed panic-stricken passengers how to get on a lifeboat, saving herself and several others in the process.
Despite the danger, the seasickness, the punishing hours and the lusty lotharios lurking on the decks, Jessop relished life at sea, according to “Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them” (St. Martin’s Press), out now.
Transatlantic travel gave the fairer sex unprecedented independence, writes the book’s author Siân Evans. Between the two world wars, when ocean voyages reached their peak, women from every background and class set sail as a means to start anew.
Some — such as Jessop — sought employment on ships at a time when jobs for women were hard to come by. Others took to sea to find a new life on another continent, such as the dancer Josephine Baker, who fled racism in the United States for a sensational career in Paris, or the promiscuous romance novelist Elinor Glyn, who escaped scandal in London and reinvented herself as a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, eventually penning the Clara Bow flapper flick “It.”
Still others became card sharps or “sea vamps,” seducing and swindling rich men during a whirlwind voyage — the kinds of dames immortalized in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “The Lady Eve.” Evans mentions one former chorus girl who in the 1920s completed 16 round trips on the Atlantic, netting about $1,000 per voyage by beguiling then blackmailing faithless married men.
These “pioneering and intrepid women,” whether passengers or seafarers, “had their lives transformed by their experiences, mostly for the better,” writes Evans. “Their motivations were as diverse as their personalities, but for each of them, to embark upon a sea voyage at all was to take a step into the unknown.”
Before the 1800s, sailors largely barred women from their boats — save for the voluptuous carved mermaids on the prow. However, by the beginning of the 19th century, captains began bringing their wives aboard some naval warships, whaling ships and smaller merchant vessels. Some boats even hired women — usually relatives of the boss — to help with catering, nursing and bookkeeping. Yet as emigration to the New World grew in the 1880s, passenger ships from Europe increasingly carried women and children as well as men, and these ships had to employ female crew members so that “proprieties could be observed.”
These women crew members acted as chaperones, caring for seasick female passengers and “dealing with all the personal hygiene issues likely to arise on an ocean-going trip lasting many weeks.”
In 1875, England passed a law requiring passenger ships carrying women to employ a matron, “who would look after the interests of female and child migrants” in third class. On the upper decks, stewardesses (like Jessop) acted as “chambermaids, personal maids and sometimes nurses” to the ladies, serving their meals, helping them dress and catering to their whims and ailments.
Despite the physical demands and cramped quarters, women applied for these jobs in droves. As Evans writes, “The idea of going to sea and earning an independent living was appealing.”
Take Hilda James, an Olympic medalist who taught swimming aboard Cunard’s luxury ships. Born 1904 to a poor family in Liverpool, James shot to fame at 16 when she won silver at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920. Two years later, Cunard invited the so-called “British Comet” on a free transatlantic trip. The awe-struck 18-year-old sat at the captain’s table in the plush Louis XVI-style dining room, attended galas in glamorous gowns and even experienced her first kiss (from fellow swimmer and future “Tarzan” actor Johnny Weissmuller).
Yet when she returned home, James was beaten by her father and got verbal lashings from her mother, who prevented her from attending the 1924 Paris Olympics.
So James called Cunard, and when she turned 21, ran away from home, snuck aboard the company’s brand-new Carinthia and began her new life as a seafaring swimming instructor and “cruise hostess.” She traveled the world, organized treasure hunts and water polo games for passengers, dealt cards in the officer’s mess, danced the Charleston till late and bought herself a motorbike before settling down and marrying a fellow crew member.
When James took her first trip in the 1920s, ships had evolved from utilitarian vessels to gigantic “floating hotels,” designed specifically to appeal to feminine tastes.
As one of Cunard’s architects explained: “The people who use these ships are not pirates, they do not dance hornpipes; they are mostly seasick American ladies, and the one thing they want to forget when they are on the vessel is that they are on a ship at all.”
Once women got their sea legs, they expected more than just cozy settings: They wanted glamorous backdrops. Soon, architects installed dramatic sweeping staircases and mirrored walls “where exquisitely dressed passengers,” such as a fur-covered Marlene Dietrich or couture-clad Adele Astaire, “could pose in their finery.”
Such lavish backdrops certainly aided stage actress Hedy Lamarr, who had just escaped her Nazi-sympathizing husband with nothing but a pile of gowns and jewels. She somehow secured a third-class ticket on the same ship headed to the United States as Hollywood studio honcho Louis B. Mayer, and she was determined to make him notice her. Every night, she debuted a new dress, piled on her jewelry and descended down the mirrored staircase to the dining room “accompanied by a succession of wealthy and ardent young men.”
She had a studio contract before even reaching shore.
During World War II, most of the great ocean liners were converted to war ships, but women continued working aboard them as nurses, cooks and stewardesses as well as engineers.
Once the war ended, “a new generation of women seafarers” emerged to help far-flung families, GI brides and their husbands and refugees reunite via steamliners.
But the boom in seafaring trips proved short, thanks to commercial air travel, which made crossing the ocean much faster and cheaper. By the middle of 1959, Evans writes, two-thirds of passengers between Britain and America traveled by jet. By the early 1960s, 95 percent of transatlantic travel was by air.
“This effectively marked the end of the ocean liners as a form of mass transportation,” notes Evans.
Still, a generation of women who had taken off because of steamliners continued to make waves, shaping postwar America and Europe through culture, science, humanitarian efforts and more.
For these brave travelers, writes Evans,“the great ship” offered “hope, opportunity, romance.”
And the journey they took would “change their lives forever.”